Commentary Magazine


Topic: linguist

Covert Operations Story Evades White House “Jihad” on Leaks

Politico reported today that a White House “jihad” against leaks of government information exacted a heavy toll on a former FBI official who was sentenced to 20 months in prison for passing classified information to a member of the media. The story describes the rigorous prosecution of former FBI linguist Shamai Leibowitz as just the latest instance of an Obama administration decision to crack down on leaking.

What, exactly, Leibowitz leaked went unmentioned in court, and even the sentencing judge admitted that he didn’t know what was leaked or what impact it might have had on policy. In accepting responsibility for his crime, Leibowitz admitted he had erred but said he was “trying to bring to light something he considered illegal.”

Obama’s insistence on prosecuting leakers is interesting, considering the ruckus raised by liberals over government secrecy during the George W. Bush administration. In those days, liberals considered leakers of secret information “whistle blowers,” not felons, even if they were spilling the beans about the most sensitive matters regarding measures against al-Qaeda terror attacks — for example, the New York Times published the details of a warrant-less wiretapping program in 2005. The Times was lauded on the left for blowing up a successful counter-terror operation, but the man whom the same newspaper backed for the presidency in 2008 seems to be treating any similar leaks of information about his administration’s actions as worthy of prison time, not Pulitzers.

However, a story published the same day in the Times leads one to wonder just how committed the administration really is to stopping leaks. Today’s newspaper led its front page with a story about a “broad expansion of clandestine military activity” to disrupt terror groups in the Middle East. It spoke of a “secret directive” signed last fall by Gen. David Petraeus that authorizes the sending of American troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the region to gather intelligence and possibly pave the way for military strikes in Iran. It said the order was a “more systematic” and “long term” version of previous actions ordered by the Bush administration.

The story went on to claim that “some Pentagon officials worry that the expanded role carries risks” and that “several government officials who described the impetus for the order” that the Times reporters appear to have read (they said it stretched over seven pages) did so anonymously.

All of which raises the question of who exactly leaked this story and why. Was it a leak from the White House? If so, is it an effort to bolster the president’s reputation as tough on security? An attempted signal to Tehran that the administration means business about stopping Iran’s nuclear program? (That might be wishful thinking, but let’s hope Tehran doesn’t treat it as a bluff.) Or was it a Pentagon leak by those within the administration or the military who might oppose a more forward American policy against terror or the threat from Iran? We don’t know the answer to those questions, but if the White House response to this leak is tepid rather than white-hot outrage, that might be considered a clue.

At any rate, I’ll bet that Mr. Leibowitz and members of the media who have been placed under investigation for publishing leaks that the White House didn’t approve of will be looking to see whether similar draconian treatment is meted out to Times reporters Mark Mazzetti, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt for their story.

Politico reported today that a White House “jihad” against leaks of government information exacted a heavy toll on a former FBI official who was sentenced to 20 months in prison for passing classified information to a member of the media. The story describes the rigorous prosecution of former FBI linguist Shamai Leibowitz as just the latest instance of an Obama administration decision to crack down on leaking.

What, exactly, Leibowitz leaked went unmentioned in court, and even the sentencing judge admitted that he didn’t know what was leaked or what impact it might have had on policy. In accepting responsibility for his crime, Leibowitz admitted he had erred but said he was “trying to bring to light something he considered illegal.”

Obama’s insistence on prosecuting leakers is interesting, considering the ruckus raised by liberals over government secrecy during the George W. Bush administration. In those days, liberals considered leakers of secret information “whistle blowers,” not felons, even if they were spilling the beans about the most sensitive matters regarding measures against al-Qaeda terror attacks — for example, the New York Times published the details of a warrant-less wiretapping program in 2005. The Times was lauded on the left for blowing up a successful counter-terror operation, but the man whom the same newspaper backed for the presidency in 2008 seems to be treating any similar leaks of information about his administration’s actions as worthy of prison time, not Pulitzers.

However, a story published the same day in the Times leads one to wonder just how committed the administration really is to stopping leaks. Today’s newspaper led its front page with a story about a “broad expansion of clandestine military activity” to disrupt terror groups in the Middle East. It spoke of a “secret directive” signed last fall by Gen. David Petraeus that authorizes the sending of American troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the region to gather intelligence and possibly pave the way for military strikes in Iran. It said the order was a “more systematic” and “long term” version of previous actions ordered by the Bush administration.

The story went on to claim that “some Pentagon officials worry that the expanded role carries risks” and that “several government officials who described the impetus for the order” that the Times reporters appear to have read (they said it stretched over seven pages) did so anonymously.

All of which raises the question of who exactly leaked this story and why. Was it a leak from the White House? If so, is it an effort to bolster the president’s reputation as tough on security? An attempted signal to Tehran that the administration means business about stopping Iran’s nuclear program? (That might be wishful thinking, but let’s hope Tehran doesn’t treat it as a bluff.) Or was it a Pentagon leak by those within the administration or the military who might oppose a more forward American policy against terror or the threat from Iran? We don’t know the answer to those questions, but if the White House response to this leak is tepid rather than white-hot outrage, that might be considered a clue.

At any rate, I’ll bet that Mr. Leibowitz and members of the media who have been placed under investigation for publishing leaks that the White House didn’t approve of will be looking to see whether similar draconian treatment is meted out to Times reporters Mark Mazzetti, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt for their story.

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